- Another One Bites the Dust
American literature is slowly going out of business. The publisher of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes and The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson is closing up shop.
Starting this July, the University of Missouri Press will begin to phase out operations. The press, which was founded in 1958 by University of Missouri English professor William Peden, has published approximately 2,000 titles over the course of its history.
Eclectic in its reach, the press has an impressive catalogue that includes offerings in Women's Studies, African American Studies, Creative Nonfiction, Journalism, and American, British, and Latin American Literary Criticism. It serves its region with series such as the Missouri Biography Series and Missouri Heritage Readers Series, and American letters in general with series such as the Mark Twain and His Circle Series and the Southern Women Series.
Their catalogue is deep and rich, and holds gems for both the serious scholar and general interest reader. In addition to the seminal collections of Emerson and Hughes, my own recent favorites are Gail Pool's Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (2007) and Ned Stuckey-French's The American Essay in the American Century (2011).
One of the measures of a great university is the strength of its press. Press strength is determined by its catalogue, and its catalogue by the choices of its editors and the impact of its authors.
University presses are non-profit enterprises. Though these presses may reach a level of financial self-sufficiency in their operation, they are by and large underwritten by their host university. This is part of the investment of higher education.
Most of the monographs produced by scholars have a limited audience—and very few make their publishers any money. However, their publication is still an important aspect of scholarly activity and knowledge dissemination.
The University of Missouri system afforded its press a $400,000 annual subsidy.
To gain a perspective on this figure and the value of the press to the university, one only has to consider that the head basketball coach at Mizzou makes $1.35 million per year—and the head football coach makes $2.5 million per year.
The interim director of the press makes just under $75,000—less than an assistant baseball coach. The acquisitions editor makes just under $35,000—less than an athletic trainer.
Closer to the cost of subsidizing the press are the salaries of the assistant head football coach and the linebacker coach/defensive coordinator, who each make just over $340,000 per year.
How does one compare a football season to a publishing season? Is an 8 and 5 season more valuable than 30 books published? Is running a press worth losing an assistant coach or two?
In total, the University of Missouri employs over 17,500 individuals. Currently, the press employs 10 people, though in 2009 it was nearly twice that number. The economic crash of 2008 forced many state universities such as the University of Missouri to reassess their priorities and scale back.
Mizzou made their priorities clear: in 2010, the University of Missouri's head football coach received a $650,000 raise.
Louisiana State University, another football powerhouse, slated its university press for closure in 2009. Somehow, this press survived the state budget crisis.
However, given that it is nowhere near as popular as their football team, I'm sure that it sleeps with one eye open, waiting for the day that university officials have to decide between a subsidy for the press—or a pay raise for Coach Saban.
Other presses were not so lucky.
Eastern Washington University, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Scranton all closed their presses.
And even the celebrated University of California Press tightened its belt by discontinuing its poetry series.
University of Missouri administrators are said to be "hashing out ways to create a new and sustainable model to operate a university press."
They also assure us that "any future press won't look like the current operation."
"We believe the publication of scholarly work is important," said the president of University of Missouri...